Archive for December 13th, 2013


it’s the adults who give the film its heart. Watson is winning as the family’s overbearing matriarch, her strict facade slipping to reveal a trembling core of vulnerability. It’s Rush, though, who steals the show, playing his part with irresistible grandfatherly charm … Barbara Brandenburgh, Des Moines review

My friend, Vivian, and I went to see The Book Thief this afternoon. It’s based on a best selling novel set in Germany in WW2; the film adaptation has received mixed reviews. On the whole the film succeeds in providing the viewers a story of fraught people who live in a repressive society which values discipline, despises and/or distrusts books, and is carrying on a brutal war whose cruelties extend to the civilian population. We see a number of scenes where military police mercilessly beat up Jewish people — and lash out at anyone who protests or irritates them. the population are terrified, cowed, submissive. They fear being taken away and killed.

Like most films, historical or otherwise, it is about today: we see mirrored in it the treatment of civilian populations by heavily armed police all around the world — in the US daily too police kill with impunity. These people under the bombs are us, are which ever body of people in the mideast is now being bombed, are anyone who is droned to death.

In the air-raid shelter

At first the film’s story moves slowly and does not seem to have any inner life or hold together. It’s not clear the little girl has been taken in by the characters Emily Watson and Geoffrey Rush play as their adopted daughter. The dialogue is wooden (Petroni’s script leaves a lot to be desired) especially at first, and between the children throughout: the actors playing the children remain stilted, staccato. The actors just don’t seem to make contact with one another.

Then as the story’s events unfold and twist the characters this way and that, a compelling and shaping center does emerge in the triangle of the father (Geoffrey Rush), mother (Emily Watson) and (temporarily?) adopted daughter (Sophie Nelisse). The directing (Brian Perceval) is effective; the settings are so good, they call attention to themselves — the quaint rooms, the basement where a young Jewish boy is hidden; the coloration has a bronze-brown hue over it.

I began to cry strongly when the conscripted father taken away, and the mother, hitherto seeming mostly severely contained and cold, turns into a grieving widow, holding to her his accordion where he makes the few notes of cheer through playing it. Especially effective is the narrative over-voice of death; I thought it was God and found its voiced sentiments (how he loves killing, how peaceful people find it to be dead) electrifyingly perverse. I thought maybe they were miscalculated attempts to give an upbeat ending, but having read about the novel I conclude they are sardonic. It is long but our time with the characters showing them doing and feeling different things, acting, reacting, dying, gives the piece its depth.

The movie conveys the idea that underlying it is a young women’s diary, perhaps written towards the end and slightly after she endured the ordeal of the war, and its ending shows the heroine to be a multi-novel author. The allusion is to Anne Frank, only this heroine survives to have a good life later on (we see her beautiful front room with a piano, photos of her family, daughters); she even reunites with Max, a Jewish young man who was kept in the basement, became sick from its cold and damp and escaped a search just in time.


At the center of the film’s story, the girl becomes “a book thief”because once she learnt to read (taught by the adopted father), she loves books. She comes to the notice of the mayor’s wife who invites her to come to the mayor’s house and library and read books in the library or “taken them out.” The mayor himself one day surprises them and kicks the girl out (as a low person, suspect with a father who is not a Nazi), so after that she sneaks in through a window to “steal” books. She is borrowing them, and returns and takes out books regularly. She reads them to anyone who will listen. She particularly likes a Kipling story whose title include the word “invisible.”

The thrust of the movie as a whole is melodramatic and pious too (the director and script writer are on the right side, have conventional values) but it is not Hollywoodized nor does it exploit the camps. The film shows death everywhere; the picturesque town our characters live in is bombed to smithereens. Its unspoken question: why do people allow others to enforce a desolate life upon them.


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